A critical evaluation of Politeness research in English and German

Contrasting linguistic politeness

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

44 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical framework of linguistic politeness
2.1 The conversational-maxim view of politeness
2.1.1 Grice's Cooperative Principle .
2.1.2 Lakoff's Rules of Politeness
2.1.3 Leech's Politeness Principle
2.2 The face-saving view of politeness
2.2.1 Brown and Levinson’s Theory of Politeness

3. Contrasting linguistic politeness in German and English
3.1. Dimensions of cross-cultural differences in German and English.
3.1.1 Critical evaluation
3.2. Contrasting speech act realisation: Requests in German and English
3.2.1 Politeness markers in German and English.
3.2.2. Critical evaluation
3.2.3. The role of modal particles

4. Conclusion

5. References

1 Introduction

Writing an introduction to politeness is like being in mortal combat with a many-headed hydra. You’ve barely severed one head when a few more grow in its place. (Watts 2003: xi)

This statement from the preface of Watts' book on politeness depicts very clearly the complexity of politeness research. Incorporating a great number of definitions, theoretical claims, empirical data and a constantly growing number of new publications on different cultures, situations and contexts, this field poses difficulties to loose sight. Consequently, it has become a widely discussed discipline of sociolinguistics and pragmatics in the last four decades and an important tool in the investigation of intercultural communication. This is not surprising, given the fact that politeness appears to be an integral part of everyday life in all civilized societies. It aims at securing a mutual understanding and comfort of individuals working and living together on the basis of keeping within shared behavioural norms. However, the conventions and rules associated with what is regarded as socially appropriate vary from one culture to another, as do the means with which these norms are expressed in communication. Hence, different cultures have developed culture-specific linguistic routines in order to realise linguistic politeness, which have led to certain expectations and schemas of interpretation for interactions. This may cause difficulties in inter-cultural communication when the interlocutors bring their own culture-specific knowledge of politeness conventions into a conversation. Clashes between differing cultural styles of speaking can lead to intercultural misunderstanding or pragmalinguistic failure. As a consequence, contrastive analyses makes up a significant part of politeness research, as it helps to explain what causes these clashes, instead of purely referring to prevalent stereotypes.

The want for a contrastive investigation into politeness phenomena, as realised in German and English, became apparent when I observed that the communicative behaviour of German subjects was often regarded as impolite and too direct by English interlocutors and consequently stereotypes were reinforced about Germans. With the present paper, I want to show that linguistic strategies operative in the two speech communities do not always carry the same politeness potential and are subject to culture-specific interpretation. My decision to focus on the realisation of the speech act of request with regards to politeness was due to the inherent pragmatic features and the application of politeness markers that this speech act category tends to carry.

Although, it is not possible to give universal depictions of politeness in German and English within the scope of this paper, this exemplary analysis can serve as an insight into prevalent conventions of the two speech communities and as a means to to develop an awareness of cultural specificities and shed light on potential areas of cross-cultural miscommunication.

As a way of establishing a general framework of the development of politeness research, I will give an overview of different theories: the first being the conversationalist maxim view, including the work of Grice, Lakoff and Leech; and the second being the face- saving view of politeness, including Brown and Levinson's model. Then, I will investigate how politeness is realised in German and English. For this purpose, I will firstly consider cultural specificities that determine linguistic politeness, examining dimensions of cross- cultural difference as proposed by Juliane House and critically evaluate these dimensions. Secondly, I will look at how politeness is reflected in the realisation of the speech act of request, drawing on results from a contrastive study on politeness markers by Juliane House and Gabriele Kasper. These will subsequently be compared to findings gained in other empirical works. Following the critical evaluation, I will also take a closer look at the significant role of modal particles in the modification of requests in order to account for some of the prevalent linguistic choices observed in the contrastive study. Finally, the paper ends with a summarising conclusion.

2 Theoretical framework of linguistic politeness

Since politeness has become an independent subject area and a specific branch of research in modern socio- and pragmalinguistics, a number of linguists have attempted to establish a theoretical approach under which linguistic politeness could be subsumed. They generally share the aim to investigate the functioning of specific communicative acts in everyday language use that are defined as polite, due to prevailing social value systems, which allows for smooth communication. However, all these theories show some pronounced differences, which lead to a certain fuzziness and lack of a clear objectivity in politeness research. Watts claims: “A theory of (im)politeness […] can never be predictive, but it can help to open up and display social processes at work” (2003: 24). Thus, politeness does not manifest itself in a fixed meaning, but has to be understood in terms of it's effect that utterances have in a constellation of different variables and how these are evaluated by the interlocutors. Moreover, not all of the many theoretical claims about the subject are equally relevant. Many of the more recent contributions are only amendments to existing theories and the changes made do usually not alter the linguistic premise of the original theory on which they are based (see Eelen 2001: 1). For the purpose of this paper, a selection of theories, as carried out within the domain of Anglo-Saxon research practice, has therefore been made. This encompasses those approaches that have been central and ground-breaking and still influence politeness research today. The approaches under examination start with the work of Grice (1975), who, notwithstanding the various criticism that has been made regarding his approach, must be acknowledged for founding the basis of the study of communicative behaviour and thus linguistic politeness. The approach by Lakoff (1973), “the mother of modern politeness theory” (Eelen 2001: 2), follows, as she was the first one to constitute a framework including a politeness principle in addition to Grice's maxims for communication. Leech (1983) provided valuable aspects for understanding politeness as a phenomenon that is closely linked to contextual and situational factors. Ultimately, the theory of politeness proposed by Brown and Levinson (1978, reprinted 1987) will be reviewed. This approach is subsumed under the face-saving view and is regarded as the most detailed and coherent model available in the investigation of linguistic politeness (see Fraser 1990).

2.1 The conversational-maxim view of politeness

The conversational maxims introduced by Grice constitute the basis of the approaches categorised under the conversational-maxim view of politeness. His postulation of the Cooperative Principle gave rise to the theoretical approaches by Lakoff and Leech. All three approaches are based on the formulation of maxims and will be examined in the following.

2.1.1 Grice’s Cooperative Principle

With his work Logic and Conversation in 1975, Grice established the framework for the linguistic study of politeness. He claimed that human communication can be explained rationally in terms of the “Cooperative Principle”, which he formulated as follows: "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged" (1975: 45). Thus, conversations are described as cooperative efforts, in which all interlocutors act according to certain principles that emerge from rational thinking in order to reach the highest possible level of efficient information transfer. As supporting guidelines of this principle, Grice (ib.) further distinguished four maxims, which were named in homage to Kant's maxims1: Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner. As Levinson puts it, these maxims are specifications of how participants have to behave in order to “converse in a maximally efficient, rational, co-operative way”, namely: speaking “sincerely”, “relevantly”, and “clearly”, while simultaneously “providing sufficient information" (1983: 102).

Following this, Grice constructs a prototype of an ideal-typical conversation to achieve the most efficient exchange of information. However, he (1975: 49) acknowledges that in everyday communication people do not always adhere to this ideal conversational prototype, thus “flouting” the conversational maxims. This gives rise to certain interpretative strategies, termed 'conversational implicatures', which, contrary to conventional implicatures, carry “implicit meaning not derivable from their conventional use” (Ogiermann 2009a: 8). This means that even if speakers do not literally say what they mean, the hidden meaning of an utterance is nonetheless understood by the hearer. Politeness can be regarded as an instance that causes flouting of the Gricean maxims, when for instance in favour of appearing polite and less direct utterances are not formulated as clearly and informative as possible.

2.1.2 Lakoff's Rules of Politeness

Notwithstanding the fact that Grice (1975: 47) acknowledges the presence of additional maxims of an aesthetic, social, and moral nature as well as their capacity of triggering conversational implicatures, such as “Be polite”, he does not expand on this idea (see Ogiermann 2009a: 10). Robin Lakoff (1973) was the first to suggest a reformulation of Grice's maxims. She introduced a set of politeness rules complementing Grice's CP, in order to account for the fact that people do not solely communicate to provide clear information but also to maintain social relationships. Thus, while the CP is directed at the information content of communication, the politeness rule includes social issues such as the consequence of an utterance for the relationship between the interlocutors (see Eelen 2001: 3). In order to account for these two functions Lakoff (1973: 296) envisages two rules of Pragmatic Competence: “Be clear”, which is reminiscent of Grice's Cooperative Principle; and “Be polite” as her extension of Grice's CP, accounting for the social function. She acknowledges that these rules are at times in conflict with each other, because being clear is not always simultaneously considered polite. Moreover, she claims that “(...) when Clarity conflicts with Politeness, in most cases [...] Politeness supersedes: it is considered more important in a conversation to avoid offence than to achieve clarity” (ib.: 297). Consequently, the second rule “Be polite” is further distinguished into three sub-rules of politeness, which are as follows: 1. Don't impose; 2. Give options; and 3. Make A2 feel good; be friendly (see ib.: 298). The first rule is geared to incidents of distance and impersonality and is thus used as a strategy to convey 'formal politeness'. This is typical for the use of formal expressions (such as a polite construction before the act of imposition as in, I'm sorry to intrude, but could you please close the window?). The second rule is applied in order to give options to the addressee and is used when 'informal politeness' is required (realised in utterances such as Would you mind closing the window?). Finally, the last rule accounts for situations in which the speaker's and the addressee's status are fairly equal and is used in situations of 'intimate politeness' (e.g. in utterances like Shut the window. It's freezing in here.) (see Lakoff 1973: 298ff.). Different cultures tend to apply the three rules to different extends and preferences. Thus, cultures can be said to comply with a strategy of distance (rule 1), deference (rule 2), or camaraderie (rule 3), depending on which of the rules is emphasized over the others (qtd. in Eelen 2001: 3).

Although this approach is still very simplistic and the reader is never told how the interlocutors are to evaluate the required level of politeness, nor what politeness itself is, “it is evident from Lakoff's conceptualisation […] that the speaker is confronted with a choice and that s/he needs to carry out a certain amount of cognitive work to reach the correct assumptions on the basis of which the appropriate utterance may be produced” (Watts, Sachiko & Ehrlich 1992: 7f.).

2.1.3 Leech's Politeness Principle

The conversational-maxim framework of politeness has found further support in the approach formulated by Geoffrey Leech (1978, 1987). Similar to Lakoff, he proposes a Politeness Principle, complementing Grice's Cooperative Principle. However, Leech's approach is much more complex than Lakoff's and does not solely aim at the development of pragmatic competence in the form of specifically formulated rules, but instead seeks to explain and establish principles of 'interpersonal rhetoric'.

Leech's approach to politeness is placed within the framework of rhetorical pragmatics, i.e. his understanding of goal-oriented use of language, particularly with regards to everyday conversations. Leech (1983: 15) formulates two systems of rhetorical principles: 'textual rhetoric' and 'interpersonal rhetoric', of which each contains further maxims. Both principles are needed for the encoding and decoding of an utterance: while 'textual rhetoric' accounts for language internal factors in the formation of an utterance (e.g. syntactic clarity), 'interpersonal rhetoric' shapes the utterance in terms of interpersonal factors and social goals of the interlocutors (e.g. context appropriateness, use of politeness, etc.) (see Eelen 2001: 7). Politeness is described within the latter, the domain of 'interpersonal rhetoric' in terms of the the Principle of Politeness.

According to Leech, his Principle of Politeness (PP) interacts with the Gricean Cooperative Principle (CP) in communication. The PP complements the CP with interpersonal factors, to account for situations in which interlocutors do not follow the maxims of the CP, while formulating their utterance (e.g. making their illocution not as informative or relevant as possible) in favour of the social well-being of all participants. Thus, Leech supports Lakoff's approach in claiming that “the PP has a higher regulative role [than Grice's CP]”, and defines politeness as “maintain[ing] the social equilibrium and the friendly relations which enable us to assume that our interlocutors are being cooperative in the first place” (1983: 82).

As a more detailed differentiation of the politeness principle Leech (1983: 119) established six sub-maxims, namely: the Maxim of Tact, Generosity, Approbation, Modesty, Agreement and Sympathy. All of these maxims generally include the principle to “minimize the expression of beliefs which are unfavourable to the hearer and at the same time (but less important) maximize the expression of beliefs which are favourable to the hearer” (qtd. in Fraser 1990: 225). Accordingly, Leech's politeness principle does not only take account of the speaker, but even more so of the hearer. He (1983: 123) further establishes a set of scales for each of these maxims, which determine the degree of politeness (i.e. the level of tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy) called for in a given situation. The first is the 'cost-benefit scale', on the basis of which the cost or benefit of an action to the speaker and the hearer is weighed up. The 'optionality scale' determines the degree to which the speaker leaves a choice to the addressee. The 'indirectness scale' assesses the hearer's effort required in order to interpret the speaker's illocution. The 'authority scale' determines to what extent the speaker is entitled to impose wishes on the hearer; and finally, the 'social distance scale' describes the level of familiarity between the speaker and hearer (see Leech 1983: 123).

Another distinction that Leech makes is between 'relative politeness' relating to politeness in a specific situation and 'absolute politeness' referring to the (negative and positive) pole of politeness inherently assigned to certain speech acts. For instance, the speech acts of offers and praise are regarded as inherently polite, while orders and criticism are valued as inherently impolite. In this regard, 'negative politeness' is understood as minimising the impoliteness of impolite illocutions, and 'positive politeness' is associated with maximising the politeness of polite illocutions (Fraser 1990: 226). Hence, according to Leech an introduction to an order, such as I'm terribly sorry to disturb you, would be an example of 'negative politeness'; while We are delighted to inform you, as an opening to an offer, represents 'positive politeness' (see. ib.).

Overall, Leech's conception of linguistic politeness can be defined as “conflict avoidance, which is attested by the specification of the maxims, as well as by his claim that politeness is geared to establishing comity” (Eelen 2000: 9). While Leech's framework does not provide concrete solutions to neither the kind nor the degree of politeness that is required (by the speaker) in a specific situation, it has to be acknowledged for supplying criteria on the basis of which a given utterance can be evaluated. Therefore his approach and, even more so, the politeness theory established by Brown and Levinson, which will be discussed in the following section, are the two frameworks in the field of linguistic politeness study, which are predominantly employed as a basis for the interpretation of empirical work conducted within this field.

2.2 The face-saving view of politeness

The second theoretical framework is represented by Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987) and is referred to as the face-saving view, because it adopts Goffman's notion of face as a public self image3. Although it is also grounded in the model of Grice's Cooperative Principle, Brown and Levinson only adopt this model in "that there is a working assumption by conversationalists of the rational and efficient nature of talk” (1987: 4) and, in contrast to the conversational-maxim view, propose a production model of how speakers produce politeness. Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness has been the most widely applied and most influential concept in the area of politeness research.

2.2.1 Brown and Levinson’s Theory of Politeness

A crucial difference between the rather abstract approaches of Lakoff and Leech and Brown's and Levinson’s framework is that the latter provides supporting empirical evidence for their claim, since it draws on the analysis of three culturally and historically unrelated languages4. They thus aim to reveal universal strategies of linguistic interaction that can account for explaining politeness phenomena. The main universal features are “rationality” and “face”, which are ascribed to “all competent adult members of a society” (Brown & Levinson 1987: 61) - who are personified in a model person. Brown and Levinson describe face as “the public-self image that every member wants to claim for himself”, comprising the “negative face” and the “positive face”(ib.: 61f.). Negative face refers to the want that one’s actions and autonomy be unimpeded by others, and positive face represents one's need to be appreciated and liked by others. Although everyone generally tries to maintain each other's face wants, Brown and Levinson claim that most speech acts “run contrary to the face wants of the addressee and/or the speaker”(1987: 65) and are potentially face threatening to the speaker's face, the hearer's face, or both. In instances like this, politeness comes into play, redressing these face-threatening acts (FTAs) by the systematic use of politeness strategies which minimise or avoid the face threatening nature of an utterance.

The speaker (S) bases his choice of politeness strategy on the following: the want to convey the content of the FTA in question; the want to be efficient or urgent; and the want to maintain the hearer's (H) face to any degree. Accordingly, Brown and Levinson (ib.: 68) propose possible strategies available to the speaker in a hierarchical order, varying from the option with the greatest risk of face loss to the addressee (type 1: on record) to the one that carries the least risk of face loss (type 5: Don't do the FTA). Hence, the greater the potential of face loss, the greater the redressive action that must be applied. Brown and Levinson's strategies are summarised in the following figure (see 1987: 69):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1. Brown and Levinson’s politeness strategies

In on record strategies the communicative intention is clear to both interlocutors. Bald-on record action without redress (strategy 1), is the most direct strategy and is applied in situations in which the hearer's face demands may be disregarded, in favour of efficiency and urgency (as in the request Come in). This strategy conforms to Grice’s maxims of a maximally efficient exchange of information.

On record strategies with redressive action, try to soften the potential face damage of the face threatening act by using modifications to indicate that no face threat is desired by the speaker (see Brown & Levinson 1987: 69). Redressive action is further subcategorized into the following: those directed towards the hearer's positive face (strategy 2), which satisfy the hearer's wants by seeking cooperation or common ground and are approach-based (cf. You must be hungry after this long journey. How about some dinner?); and those strategies redressing the hearer's negative face (strategy 3) by minimizing the intrusion into the addressee's freedom of action, being avoidance-based (cf. I just want to ask you if I could possibly borrow your computer?) (ib.: 69).

Off record (strategy 4), which, in contrast to on-record, refers to a speech act carrying more than one clear communicative intention and thus constitutes a fundamentally indirect use of language. This strategy is applied when “a speaker wants to do an FTA, but wants to avoid responsibility for doing it, he can do it off-record and leave it up to the addressee to decide how to interpret it” (Brown & Levinson 1987: 211). For example the utterance I am freezing, could be intended as a request to the hearer to shut the window, but does not explicitly say so. Consequently, this strategy concentrates on face redress and violates the maxims of Grice’s Cooperative Principle.

The last option available to the speaker is abandoning the FTA completely (strategy 5: Don't do the FTA); hence, not saying anything since the potential of face loss is too great.

In addition, Brown and Levinson (1987: 76ff.) claim that in selecting the appropriate type of strategy, the speaker needs to assess the seriousness and potential face threat of his speech act and therefore determine its 'weightiness' (W). This can be done on the basis of three variables: social power (P), social distance (D), and the imposition of the speech act (R). The variable P denotes the power that the hearer has over the speaker. The variable D refers to the social distance between speaker and hearer, including an assessment of the frequency of interaction and familiarity between the interlocutors. Finally, R represents the ranking of the degree of imposition of a speech act within a specific culture and situation, viz. the cultural and situational perception and rating of face-threatening acts (see Brown & Levinson 1987: 77). All three variables ultimately make up the 'weightiness' of a face threatening act on a summative basis, which is calculated as follows, with x denoting a speech act, S the speaker, and H the hearer: Wx = D (S,H) + P (S,H) + Rx (see ib.: 76). The resulting 'weightiness' displays the seriousness of a face-threat and thus accounts for the level of politeness and the choice of strategy a speaker is required to apply in performing his/her speech act. The greater the value of W, the bigger the concern of the speaker to protect the face of the addressee and therefore the closer the communicative act should be to a strategy with less risk of face loss (e.g. strategy 5). On the contrary, the smaller the value of W, the bigger the concern for clarity of the communicative act is and the closer it can be to a strategy which involves greater face loss (e.g. strategy 1) (see Watts 2003: 96). As Watts vividly illustrates this means “if borrowing lawnmowers from your neighbour is rated culturally as a serious imposition, if you do not know your neighbour, or if you neighbour is your local bank manager and you have a large overdraft, choose strategy 5” (ib.).


1 See Kant's The critique of pure reason (1781; rev. 1787) . 5

2 'A' being 'Alter', referring to the conversational partner

3 Goffman describes his concept of face as “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact” (1972: 319), while facework is “the actions taken by a person to make whatever he is doing consistent with face” (ib.).

4 The corpus includes English; Tzeltal, a Mayan language spoken in the South of Mexico; and Tamilisch, a Dravidian language mainly spoken in southern India.

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A critical evaluation of Politeness research in English and German
Contrasting linguistic politeness
University of Wuppertal  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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Linguistic politeness, politeness research, German and English, politeness, requests, cultural differences, cross-cultural differences, modal particles, Cooperative principle, Grice, Lakoff, Leech
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Friederike Brons (Author), 2011, A critical evaluation of Politeness research in English and German, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/187311


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